Is £15 a bit extortionate for a concert programme? It seems to be the norm for Lambert Jackson Productions, who ran out of programmes for one of their concerts at Cadogan Hall previously, because the venue was selling them for a far more reasonable £8. LJP then sent an email to ticket bookers saying they could, if they still wanted (for a one-off concert, mind you) purchase one but it would now be £18 – the additional £3 was needed to cover postage and packing. (Packing? What did they want to ‘pack’ a programme in? A mahogany box?)
In the absence (as far as I could make out) of any other merchandise, however, and with no set, a sparse number of props and an even sparser number of costumes, I couldn’t work out who was doing what in this production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, or the context of each of the nineteen songs, I paid up. (I was going to say ‘coughed up’, but you try coughing in a theatre these days: everyone glares at you because you might have Rona Corona.)
Social distancing, for those interested in such matters (which are not, whatever the conspiracy theorists and well, certain Members of Parliament, think, are far from trivial) is enforced both in the audience and on stage. I’d seen it all before at the ‘test’ performance at the Palladium back in July, at which Beverley Knight did a concert, but for those coming to the Palladium for the first time under Covid restrictions, seeing every seat in every other row, plus two seats between each ‘bubble’ in rows with audience members seated, all marked with a big ‘X’, might have been a bit of a shock to the system.
As far as the show went, each of the songs is a complete mini-story in itself, which probably explains why songs like ‘Stars and the Moon’ and ‘I’d Give It All For You’ are popular as standalone songs in musical theatre concerts. Evidently, it’s been a while since these actors were on stage, and the atmosphere in the Palladium was also very positively charged.
I know there were some critics and reviewers who thought that perhaps once theatres fully reopen under ‘stage five’ of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s ‘roadmap’ (that is, social distancing has ended) the initial reviews need to be kinder to take into account that actors have, to borrow a football term, been lacking in match fitness. “Bah, humbug!” is my response to that. This group simply gave first-rate performances, and I am confident this will carry through when the shows that can’t come back yet are able to do so. Put simply, there is no need to be critically more generous because productions are likely to be at least as good as they were before The Great Shutdown.
This proved the case here, with four actors (in the order listed in the programme, Rachel John, Rachel Tucker, Cedric Neal and David Hunter) who are well-suited to the principal roles they have filled in their careers to date, and yet retained the ability to sing well in harmony with one another in the roles of one another’s ensemble. Shem Omari James, a 2020 ArtsEd graduate, more than held his own among such established actors with the Act One closing number. At the end of the second half, twelve final year students from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts joined the company, as a further nod to the stars of the future.
The explosive and comedic roles largely went to Tucker, who in the first half vented her spleen at ‘Murray’, her character’s husband, who she had clearly had enough of. In the second she is married to Santa Claus, but is highly rankled at the thought of another Christmas at home without company. As the show is set in the United States, there are rather more references to faith and Christian religion than there probably would be in a British song cycle – one song, ‘Christmas Lullaby’, almost sounds like a contemporary hymn.
At ninety minutes, it could have run through without an interval, though it may have been a bit much to take in all in one big gulp, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to come up for air halfway through. Jason Robert Brown tunes are not the easiest to navigate, whether one is sat in the audience or stood on stage bringing it to life, but there’s no doubting the superb quality of the harmonies and performances here, in which there is as much ballading as there is belting.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.